Friday, December 30, 2005

History the Way It Ought To Be

I have of late been refreshing and increasing my knowledge of the history of Western Civilization. I have tried to avoid the kinds of history books that are for the most part a chronology of political events – actions by governments or reactions against them. Those events are, on the whole, not terribly interesting. There have, of course, been times and places when history has taken a very dramatic and colorful turn. Those have very often been times of war, revolution or civil disorder. Well-written accounts of certain kinds of historical events or periods can be very entertaining but in the end are not particularly helpful in terms of providing insight into the forces and influences that have shaped Western Civilization. Economic and cultural histories are much more useful in that regard.

When exploring the historical foundations of contemporary Western civilization one is inevitably drawn to Hellenistic Greece and the Italian Renaissance. The very best cultural histories of those periods are those of Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt. His “The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy” first published in 1860 remains the definitive work on this subject. You will find in it no mention of the Arab or Islamic world as it played no significant role in the development of the Italian Renaissance. The book, of course, has never been out of print. It is also available gratis on the Internet. In order to partake of the pleasures and insights of Burckhardt’s historiography you must first acquaint yourself with the political history of the Italian Renaissance. It is worth the effort.

Burckhardt’s “The Greeks and Greek Civilization” is a selection of his lectures on the subject. It became available to Americans in English translation 1998 and is derived from a five-volume work in German first published in 1872. There is no better cultural history of the ancient Greeks available in English and after reading it you almost feel as though you have lived among them and seen the world through their eyes. Burckhardt’s style of writing is lively and entertaining. Nevertheless, you must brush up on your ancient Greek mythology and political history before reading it or you will soon find yourself adrift in a sea of unfamiliar names and events.

“A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War” by Victor David Hanson is not a traditional political or military history. Hanson strives to convey a sense of what it was like to personally participate in that war. Military history buffs will prefer Donald Kagan’s “The Peloponnesian War” in either its abridged one volume version or in its full four volume manifestation. Hanson’s work is aimed at a broader audience. Together with Burckhardt’s “The Greeks and Greek Civilization” it leaves one with the feeling that the Greeks in general and Athenians in particular were a remarkably nasty lot.

The Belgian historian Henri Pirenne was a pioneer in economic history and his works are essential to an understanding of the European medieval period. His “Mohammed and Charlemagne” published posthumously in 1937 presents a very different picture of the fall of the Roman Empire than the once generally accepted interpretation advanced by Edward Gibbon in the “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. Pirenne persuasively makes the case that the fragmentation of the Roman Empire following the deposition of the last Western Roman Emperor in 476 did not lead to the collapse of Western Roman civilization. He argues instead that the Muslim conquest of the western and southern shores of the Mediterranean led to the economic collapse of Western Europe and that, in turn, led to the dramatic transformation in social and economic organization that characterized medieval Western Europe.

Pirenne was the most respected medieval historian of his era. His “Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe” paints a picture of the period very much different from the impressions one might acquire from conventional political histories. It is gratifyingly free of dates and names. As Pirenne equates the beginning of the medieval period in Europe with the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 810 A.D. his book continues on from where “Mohammed and Charlemagne” ends.

The Eastern Roman Empire lingered on after the demise of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A.D. It fell to the heathen Turks in 1452. It was only then that the last vestiges of Western civilization were eradicated from Asia Minor and the Middle East. Although Byzantine history is irrelevant in terms of the main influences that have shaped the development of Western Civilization it is nonetheless an entertaining blend of treachery, intrigue, venality, murder most foul and caprice. It has about it the quality of soap opera and there is no more entertaining account of this bizarre era than “A Short History of Byzantium” by John Julius Norwich. It is an abridged version of Norwich’s full three-volume series.

Respectable historians who specialize in American history hold one of two general views about the origin and nature of the American Revolution or one some place in between. There are some that argue that the American Revolution entailed a radical political and social transformation. The other and I think more balanced view is that the American Revolution was both conservative and reformist in nature. It was conservative in that it strove to preserve and protect traditional Anglo/American political institutions threatened by an increasingly intrusive and exploitive British colonial administration. It was reformist insofar as it required the formation of a national government that would be as good or better as the British government had once been in protecting personal property and individual liberty.

Indispensable to an understanding of American history is Bernard Bailyn’s “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution”. In it Bailyn describes in exhaustive but not exhausting detail an American colonial political debate about the proper role and organization of government that had begun a very long time before the Corn Laws and Intolerable Acts. Bailyn’s primary sources are pamphlets, sermons, newspaper opinion pieces, diaries and the like. They reflect a lively public discourse inspired in significant measure by the works of John Locke and other liberal Republican Englishmen written in the early 1720s. John Adams once remarked that the American Revolution had been effected before hostilities began. Bernard Bailyn explains why this was so.

All of the books described above have the virtue of providing a broader and more useful historical perspective. None of them resemble the dreadful school textbooks we have all suffered through at one time or another. They help make sense of it all.

Jacob Burckhardt's portrait graces the Swiss 1,000 franc note shown above.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The Bottled Water Rip Off

I have for too long seen countless people carrying with them bottles of water as they go about their business. Many if not most of them appear to believe that they should drink at least 64 ounces of water a day to stay “hydrated” and that bottled water is sufficiently superior to tap water to justify paying for what is normally available for free. Where could they have possibly gotten those silly ideas?

Those bizarre notions seem to be the product of a clever marketing campaign by those who sell bottled water that dovetailed nicely with their customers’ ignorance of human physiology. The false claims of the International Bottled Water Association provide a nice summary of the common marketing pitch.

The IBWA states that people should drink at least eight 8-ounce servings of water a day. This is about 300 milliliters more than the minimum of 1.6 liters of water we need to replace each day. However, the water content of the food we eat will satisfy about 60% of that requirement. Most of the things we eat each day are mostly water: meat, potatoes, rice, vegetables, eggs, breakfast cereal, etc. Hard cheese is about 35% water. While there is an average amount of water we excrete each day that needs to be replaced there is no arbitrary amount of water that we should drink.

The IBWA advocates drinking water before you become thirsty. There is no medical or physiological basis for this claim. You are advised to drink plenty of water throughout the day and always keep a bottle of water with you. However, you are a mammal. The physiological mechanisms in your body that regulate fluid balance are identical to those in a dog, horse, rat or raccoon. Other mammals don’t drink before they are thirsty or drink plenty of water throughout the day because they don’t need to. Neither do you. Your pituitary gland regulates urine formation in order to preserve your electrolyte balance while nerve cells in your lateral hypothalamus trigger the process that makes you feel thirsty when blood volume falls below a certain level. Initial thirst comes before dehydration. Physiological stress from dehydration begins when your normal blood volume has declined by 5%. You start feeling thirsty when it has declined by about 2%.

Drinking too much water can temporarily disable you or permanently kill you. The medical word for lowering the sodium content of your blood to the point where you sicken or die is hyponatremia. The following description of the condition is from Wikepedia. It is consistent with information from other sources.

“Water intoxication is a medical condition (also known as hyperhydration) in which an individual's intake of water is excessive. A person with two healthy kidneys can rid themselves of about 1.5 liters of water per hour at maximum filtration. The main consequences of over consumption are hyponatremia (decreased plasma sodium, due to dilution) and suppression of the production of antidiuretic hormone. Extreme hyponatremia (with plasma sodium levels less than 100 mmol/L) frequently leads to cerebral edema, seizures, coma, and death.

Although water intoxication invariably leads to hyponatremia, the two conditions are in fact distinct. (Hyponatremia may occur in the absence of elevated water intake; for instance in conditions such as diarrhea where sodium is flushed excessively from the body).

Famous sufferers of water intoxication include Leah Betts and Anna Wood (both fatal), 2002 Boston Marathon competitor Cynthia Lucero (also fatal) and athlete Craig Barrett (recovered). In a much-publicized case of fraternity hazing, four members of the Chi Tau House at Chico State University pled guilty to forcing 21-year-old student Matthew Carrington to drink excessive amounts of water while performing calisthenics in a frigid basement as part of initiation rites on Feb. 2, 2005. He collapsed and died of heart failure due to water intoxication.”

There have been at least three other recent fatalities from over consumption of water. Two were young soldiers in basic training and the third a New York City policeman competing in a bicycle race. While the members of the International Bottled Water Association would have us believe that there is no such thing as consuming too much of their product, the death toll from doing so continues to rise.

A Google search for references to water intoxication will generate about 3.4 million hits. Drill down further and you will find countless references to people so afraid of dehydration that they drank enough to induce seizures, comas and in some cases brain damage from cerebral edema (swelling of the brain).

Another myth promoted by hydration faddists and the bottled water industry is that only pure water – ideally out of bottles – can replenish the amount we normally excrete in a day. I am living proof that this is a lie. I have on many occasions for many months at a time not consumed a single glass of water. The only water I consumed came from the food I ate, soft drinks containing caffeine, tea, coffee and beer. Why am I still alive? I should have perished from dehydration long ago.

Beverages containing caffeine have a mild diuretic effect. They increase your rate of urine production. However, the additional amount of urine you produce is less than the amount of water contained in the beverages. Coffee and Coca Cola do not cause dehydration. There are peer-reviewed scientific articles supporting that assertion. There are no scientific studies contradicting that assertion.

It should therefore be no wonder that I have the urge to roll my eyes when I see hydration faddists trundling along clutching their plastic water bottles. How utterly foolish they appear to me.

The enormous waste of resources involved is described in this news report.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

ANWR Idiocy

I once spent a year living in central Alaska and traveled as far south as Delta Junction and northward to the Brooks Range. Alaska is something I know about from personal experience. It is vast and the human footprint on it so faint as to be negligible. ANWR oil extraction would entail a footprint about the size of L.A. International Airport. It could not have a significant adverse impact on the ecology of the North Slope and could very well be beneficial.

The Central Arctic Herd of caribou that migrates through and calves in the area to be occupied by Prudhoe Bay oil field facilities was carefully counted by air before development began. The herd consisted of about 3,000 caribou in 1970. The size of the herd increased rapidly as the oil fields were developed and has since stabilized at about 23,000. Herd sizes may increase or decline year to year. They grow during mild winters and decline during exceptionally severe ones. In 1998 the Central Arctic Herd numbered 38,552. Nevertheless, environmentalists paradoxically argue that oil extraction has harmed the herd by disrupting its pattern of migration and calving.

The Western Arctic Herd went through a steep decline in the 1970s. It fell from 242,000 animals before the Trans-Alaska pipeline to a low of 75,000 after its completion. It then recovered and numbers 490,000 animals today. On the whole, there are far, far more caribou in Alaska now than before oil development began. Furthermore, there is no scientific evidence that any other species of plant or animal has declined as a result of Alaskan oil extraction.

One of the factors that contributed to the dramatic growth in herds is that oil development provided well-paying jobs to Native Alaskans normally relying on caribou as their primary winter food source. A Native Alaskan family living off the land needs to kill and eat about one caribou a week to survive winter. If the family relies on a team of sled dogs it will need to kill a caribou about every five days. It doesn't take many hunter-gatherers to hunt a species to extinction. Native Americans repeatedly did so before European immigration.

Given a complete absence of evidence of any measurable harm suffered by Alaskan plant and animal life environmentalists and their stooges in Congress can do little more than claim harm from oil spills and emissions. However, in the absence of scientific evidence of a harmful effect on any species of plant or animal those events must be considered causes without effects.

Perhaps the most fatuous argument against ANWR oil extraction is that there isn’t enough oil to make it worthwhile. That is a decision best made by the free market rather than bureaucrats, Greenies and venal politicians. Significantly increasing worldwide oil production is going to take many development efforts that achieve little individually and a great deal together. If no profit can be made extracting oil from the ANWR no extraction will take place. If a profit can be made, extraction should take place.